Peevishly defensive, intransigently personal and serenely indifferent to critical (and audience) reaction, Lady in the Water might be this year's Brown Bunny: M. Night Shyamalan settles for being humbled rather than blown by his muse, though the air is similarly pungent with confessional sincerity. Bitterness, too -- the filmmaker rolls every reviewer who trashed The Village into the dour figure of Bob Balaban's Mr. Farber, a "book and film critic" who arrogantly declares there's no originality left in the world and whose demise is Shyamalan's version of Vincent Gallo putting a curse onto Roger Ebert's colon. But that's getting ahead of the plot of this self-described "bedtime story," kicked off with animated cave squiggles laying the mythological ground ("once, Man and those in the water were linked...") before locating the latest of the director's hermetically enclosed worlds, a low-rent Philadelphia apartment complex tagged The Cove. Balaban is the newest tenant, but, being a one-note stereotype, he fits right in with the other dwellers: Jeffrey Wright quietly obsesses over crossword puzzles, Freddy Rodriguez pumps up only half of his body, Bill Irwin stays somberly glued to TV war coverage, Cindy Cheung wants to party hard in broken English, Jared Harris presides over a faction of tokers, and so on. Paul Giamatti is the depressed superintendent, stocked with bad stutter, symbolically sheepish moniker, and tragic backstory; he takes a dip into the pool and awakens only to find Bryce Dallas Howard, dressed in a wet shirt, staring blankly at him.
Let the wackiness commence: She's a "narf," a sea nymph assigned to inspire a future writer before returning to "the Blue World" via the "Great Eatlon" eagle without being mauled by grassy jackals called "scrunts." There are also "Tartutic" monkeys, medicinal mud, the Guardian, the Symbolist, the Healer, and the Guild, only a sample of the convoluted, faux-mythology the characters accept unquestioningly; viewers are asked to do the same, for this is a parable about faith during violent times and interconnectedness, "all things have a purpose" and such. The tone is strenuously grave, yet often Lady in the Water carries hints of private jokes (Giamatti miming childlike curiosity on a couch, ominous lawn sprinklers as running gags, Balaban's nutty monologue about genre clichés before getting eviscerated) that could categorize it as failed satire instead of failed fantasy. Shyamalan's humorlessness thwarts his self-reflexive stabs, and yet there he is, inserting himself into his own sinister-benign textures as the Chosen Visionary whose literary opus ("thoughts on cultural troubles") lies unfinished until he gazes at Howard's dewy snarf madam and gets that "pins and needles" sensation, on his way to changing the world. Such self-fondling can be fascinating, and Shyamalan's narcissism is in any case less malign than Solondz's (Giamatti's presence provides a useful link to Storytelling) -- the film climaxes with Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters beans, refried as a spectacle of communal healing. Shyamalan spins this personal bedtime story lugubriously but earnestly, utterly unconcerned that the kids he improvised it for are rolling their eyes by the bedside.
Nobody could accuse Shyamalan of advancing the motifs that have fixated him even before The Sixth Sense, though his oeuvre is a model of progression next to Kevin Smith's. His last flick, Jersey Girl, received as much of a critical scrubbing as The Village, but Smith isn't mounting an elaborate fuck-you allegory; he's instead retreating to the comfy grounds that, 12 years ago, gave him generous indie cred on the basis of shoestring grottiness and cap-turned-backwards impudence. The budget has since swelled, but the scatological song remains the same -- Clerks II opens as a hazy memory of that 1994 breakthrough, rudimentary black-and-white shifting to bland color for the return of the title's convenience-store drudges, best friends Dante and Randal (Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson). The Quick Stop's burned down, so the two deadbeats take their many years of experience farting behind counters to Mooby's, the main source of fast food grease in Smith's own secluded world, View Askewniverse. Now thirtysomething and looking fortysomething, they still engage in randy high-school repartee with the tortured souls preparing or purchasing burgers, with subjects ranging from the inappropriateness of ass-to-mouth to whether "porch-monkey" constitutes a racial slur, with one extended Star Wars versus Lord of the Rings debate built around which trilogy gets fanboys wetter (the joke, had there actually been one, is that both are equally worthless). Outside, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) lean against a wall, thus making the paralysis complete.
It's Dante's last day, he's moving to Florida with his domineering fiancée (Jennifer Schwalbach) for what Randal (and the movie) sees as an existence of droning mediocrity, fraudulent next to staying home with the woman (Rosario Dawson) who loves him for whom he really is. Dante confesses his true feelings for her, Randal confesses his ("totally heterosexual") love for Dante; between the emotional declarations, naturally, lies the wild donkey-sex show, brought to the restaurant from Tijuana. Smith has never reconciled his raucous and maudlin sides, but that ain't what's unforgivable; neither is his stylistic listlessness (more than a decade and he still doesn't know where to stick the fucking camera), his drab mix of image and sound (scenes scored to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and "ABC" are anti-Scorsesean root-canals), or even his addiction to reaction shots, employed like exclamation points for his sub-sitcom dialogue. No, what's truly unforgivable is the willful regression of Clerks II, the grubby cynicism with which the film pays lip-service to growing up while fully endorsing the facetious stasis of the characters, and, thus, of the filmmakers. Then again, Smith may just be keeping up with the trend: as in Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up, and You, Me and Dupree, American male slackerdom is celebrated rather than examined, with only the images of the older, pudgier, stunted performers functioning as unintentional criticism.
Clerks II is live-action cartooning, Monster House is digital-animation realism. Realism of texture, anyway -- American suburban surfaces taken out of the '80s screen offerings of Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Columbus, and carefully recreated in pristine computer images. Thankfully, Gil Kenan's frenzied thrill ride ditches the creepy, flesh-cloning technique that turned the Polar Express characters into possessed dummies: The spelunking young protagonists, unconsciously sorting through puberty while venturing into a decrepit, possibly haunted old house, remain cartoon kids even as they brave through the movie's PG-stretching set-pieces. The mansion itself, glimpsed anxiously through preteen peepers, frowns and growls, wooden boards turn into fangs and a red carpet stretches like a tongue; Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Jason Lee provide voices. A far more interesting animated feature than Over the Hedge or Cars, though, while pouring through The Goonies and old Amazing Stories episodes, Kenan would have done well to remember that, around that same time, Joe Dante and Tim Burton (not to mention David Lynch) were seeking their own more profound, grinning-skull visions of the giddy monstrosities lurking just behind white fences.
Reviewed July 27, 2006.